Skip to main content
music

Elvis Costello performs at a jazz festival on Spain last summer. But is he jazz?RAFA RIVAS/AFP / Getty Images

By rights, early summer should be the happiest time of year for Canadian jazz fans. From the last week of June through the early days of July, it's jazz-festival season, with near-simultaneous festivals running in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Vancouver and Victoria.

Some jazz fans, both here and south of the border, plan vacations around these annual events, and eagerly look forward to whatever their favourite festival has on tap. But jazz fans being, well, jazz fans, there are always those who see the festival schedules as an excuse to complain that Canadian jazz festivals simply are not jazzy enough.

This year's Ottawa International Jazz Festival, for example, prompted several broadsides in the local press. Complaining that this year's lineup included Robert Plant, Elvis Costello and k.d. lang's new band, a columnist for The Ottawa Citizen sniffed, "Call me a maverick, but I think jazz festivals should have jazz."

"I went through the entire schedule and found that there are six acts out of 116 that aren't jazz," says Petr Cancura, programming manager for the Ottawa jazz fest. "So that percentage is very small. But it definitely draws attention, because three of those are Robert Plant, Elvis Costello and k.d. lang.

"But those three names will pay for a lot of the things we're able to offer that don't pay for themselves."

Welcome to the uniquely frustrating mathematics of the modern jazz festival. How do you program a 10-day event intended to draw hundreds of thousands of people when only a precious few jazz acts are capable of filling a 2,500-seat hall?

Josh Grossman, who is in his second year as artistic director for Toronto Downtown Jazz, which produces the Toronto jazz festival, has spent much of the last year looking at the box-office numbers for past festivals, as well as some concerts and club dates in Toronto.

"It's the festival's 25th anniversary, so we've spent a lot of time looking at who the big acts were," he says. "The names that came through on a consistent basis - the Dizzy Gillespies, the Ella Fitzgeralds - I don't know who that would be in the new generation of jazz artists. I'm not sure that the superstars of jazz today have the same draw as the superstars of 20 or 30 years ago. And we're really struggling against that."

Grossman adds that the very notion of jazz stardom is problematic, because it's based more on artistic merit and creative influence than actual ticket sales. "I've been disappointed to learn what past ticket sales have been for some of the artists that I hold in the absolute highest esteem," he says. "Real legends or trailblazers in the jazz scene, and 700 or 800 tickets is a really good show for them."

There is, of course, plenty of room at Canada's jazz festivals for artists playing to just a couple of hundred people. In fact, shows at clubs and small theatres make up the bulk of the programming, even if those acts get barely a fraction of the buzz of the bigger, outdoor shows.

"At the Montreal jazz fest, there are so many different things going on that, for sure, we don't have the same mind frame when talking about outdoor shows and indoor shows," says Laurent Saulnier, vice-president for programming and production. "Jazz is not selling as well as it was something like 10 or 15 years ago, so we have to think about the next audience, about the young people.

"We have to think about those people who will drop by the jazz fest site to see something else than jazz. But in the meantime, when they're going from one stage to the other, maybe they'll catch a little bit of jazz. Maybe they won't stay the first time in front of that stage, but after two, three, four days, they will stay a little bit longer, and get a little bit used to jazz. And maybe, we hope, appreciate it also."

Of course, the Montreal festival attracts more than a million listeners a year, and operates on a different scale than the other jazz confabs - or even most pop fests. Saulnier anticipates that the opening outdoor concert, featuring francophone R&B singer Ben l'Oncle Soul, will draw as many as 100,000 people, only a fraction of whom will later attend concerts by Dave Holland or Marc Ribot.

But just as the term "jazz" can apply to anything from by-the-book bebop to the hairiest of free improvisation, the folks who attend jazz fests are an equally varied bunch. "I think we're looking at many different audiences for the totality of the festival," says Ken Pickering, artistic director for the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. "It's always fun when you do see crossover, when folks who do see a Colin James discover something new."

To that end, the Vancouver fest is hoping to encourage experimentation by introducing the "Hopper Pass," a $125 super-ticket that allows access to 60 shows in five different venues. "The venues include the Vogue theatre series, which has artists as diverse as Blonde Redhead, Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, or Trombone Shorty," he says. "But with that pass, you could also hear [avant-garde acts like]Peter Brotzman, or Atomic, or Satoko Fujii."

Finding new ways to expose listeners to jazz and "grow the audience" is a recurring refrain among the people who put Canada's jazz festivals together. But as Saulnier points out, it's important to remember that there's a difference between educating the listener, and treating music as if it should be educational.

"I think jazz right now is a little too intellectual, and I think people forget that not so many years ago, jazz was a kind of dance music," he says. "Remember the golden big-band era? That was real party music for people."

HOT TICKETS

Best bets at the Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver jazz festivals



Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, June 25 to July 4

Diana Krall, June 26-28, Théâtre Maisonneuve. How often can you hear Krall play solo?

Esperanza Spalding, June 27, Théâtre Maisonneuve. She snatched the Best New Artist Grammy from Justin Bieber and Drake. The bassist appears with her string-driven Chamber Music Society.

Tony Bennett, July 1, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. Still swinging after all these years.

Ottawa International Jazz Festival, June 23 to July 3

Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau, June 27, National Arts Centre Studio. Two sets by the saxophone/piano duo.

Return to Forever IV, June 27, Canal Stage. Confederation Park. The latest incarnation of Chick Corea's classic fusion band.

Kenny Wheeler, July 3, National Arts Centre Studio. The Canadian jazz giant plays with young lions Myra Lelford, Jon Irabagon and Diana Torto.

Toronto Jazz Festival, June 24 to July 3

Aretha Franklin, June 24, Metro Centre. A free concert by the Queen of Soul. Need we say more?

The Bad Plus, June 28, Enwave Theatre. Everybody's favourite modernist piano trio.

Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo, June 29, Koerner Hall. The world premiere of a new work, Songs of Mirth and Melancholy.

Vancouver International Jazz Festival, June 24 to July 3

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, June 26, The Orpheum. Wynton Marsalis's crack big band.

Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, June 26, The Vogue Theatre. A homecoming by the celebrated young big-band composer.

Gordon Grdina's Nordic Sextet, July 1, The Roundhouse. The Vancouver guitarist leads a special all-star band.